We chatted with artist Russell Shaw smack bang in the middle of his move from Atlanta to San Francisco to join the team at Slack. Here, we talk about his experience in Atlanta; his thoughts on real-world projects in your portfolio; how the industry is becoming more and more saturated; plus his Power Rangers dedicated website he put together at age 9.
What are some of your earliest creative memories and what lead you into design? I’m positive that this is a cliché in interviews like this at this point, but it really is true that I have just been drawing over everything I could get my hands on, all the time, ever since I was a little kid. It started out with regular, little boy-doodling – pictures of dragons and knights, tigers and wolves – and then when I reached maybe late elementary school I became relatively obsessed with inventing cities and drawing really complex maps, invention schematics, or architectural renderings. I was big into Legos as well. I think there was always an artistic side to the way I saw the world, but it was less about freeform creativity; it was always more interesting to me to order things, organize them, think in systems, and create things with intricate, infinite detail. (I think it also helped that I got into computers when I was really young. I learned how to take them apart and build them, how to write code, how to use basic graphic design software – I put together my first website when I was nine-years-old. It was just a lot of rambling about Power Rangers. The background was a repeating image pattern of a photo of fire. It was rad.)
When did you fall in love with design and how did you get started? I think my love of infinite detail is ultimately what led me into the design profession rather than into studio art. I actually went into college pursuing studio art. But one day, one of my professors approached my drafting table in a painting course and, in front of the whole class, said – and I kid you not, this is verbatim, because I have never forgotten it – she said: “Watching you try to create art is like watching someone drive nails through their fingers.” Ouch! That stuck with me. What she meant was that I was too tight, too obsessed with detail, and too focused on getting things absolutely perfect. And she was right. I was not mad; I think it steered me away from something I just did not have in me. Also, during that same semester, a media company in town heard that I knew the ins-and-outs of a lot of design software, and hired me to do a few graphic campaigns for them. Once I started working on that project, I just fell in love with the process and the work itself. I think it all just lined up and clicked at the same time for me: I realized I could actually make a career out of graphic design.
What do you look for in a great portfolio? I look for real work. Even if it is just one project. Even if it is terrible in comparison to the portfolio projects that a student did in their actual classwork. The reason is simple: the industry is becoming more and more saturated with students who have relatively good taste and aesthetics, a good mastery of the tools, and can put together a good-looking portfolio – especially when their ideas are not being subjected to the expectations and criticisms of someone outside of the design world, or in other words, a real client. Once a project is for a real client, it changes everything. You don’t get to pull some designer-y crap just for the sake of impressing your design school friends. You have to justify your decisions to a person that doesn’t understand color or type theory. And you also have to figure out what they’re really looking for, try to meet the expectation, and handle their feedback – not to mention the mess that comes with taking your design into actual production. I’ve seen some students who have absolutely killer work in their portfolios, but it’s all theoretical. Once they actually get real work, they kind of phone it in – and I think it’s because they don’t know how to manage feedback and produce things under budget, on time, and still with a lot of integrity. So even if it’s just something done for a non-profit or a start-up, even if it didn’t really pay, even if it’s not your best work – showing one real-world project in your portfolio speaks volumes about your abilities, in my opinion.
Are you involved in any mentoring/teaching/workshops and, if so, how does it shape your practice? I do teach visual design courses part-time, as well as lead talks on branding for small retreats and workshops. When I entered into it, I was hoping to gain a new skill as a teacher, but I wound up getting a lot more out of it than that. It really got me passionate about my design work all over again. I remember one class, in my first cohort, when I was teaching on typography and the students all saw something for the first time that they had never noticed before – their eyes got wide and lit up. It just reinvigorated things again for me that had become routine and commonplace. Teaching brings back the excitement that I had when I first learned those things. It also helps me “get out of my head” a bit by making me explain and re-explain concepts that have become engrained, which I think has helped me explain my work better and better to clients in return.
What have been some of the biggest lessons you’ve learnt along the way? 1. What you do as a designer is unique. I think that, a lot of the time, we have a very insulated-feeling community. We go to design conferences, read design editorials, and hang out with other designers. The impression that you may have after a while is: this industry is already too full, and everyone in the world is a designer, so I’ll never stand out. But that is not really true. It just feels that way because you need to go and hang out with more people who don’t do what you do. In reality, this is still a unique profession. The main thing that separates people out is simply time. A lot of people get tired and quit. So just don’t quit, and before you know it, you’re a seasoned veteran designer, hah!
2. Focus on learning how to actually communicate, and not only on how to get better at aesthetics. A lot of younger designers that I know seem so obsessed with developing their own style. And they seem to think, “If I can just get better aesthetically, then all of a sudden I’ll unlock fame and promotions and whatnot.” But that’s not what makes someone a better designer. Developing a style is easy, but developing a voice is better. Learn to write – not so you can become a copywriter-designer, but so you can start to think about how to sell your ideas to others. Learn to communicate so that your design work can better articulate solutions for people’s real needs. Style will be fleeting. Creating sharp and current work that is just visual fluff may be nice for a while, but a really valuable designer is one who – in the long-run – knows how to communicate memorable and understandable messages that meet real needs and objectives.
3. Always get paid. At first, this sounds greedy – but hear me out. You may think that you got into this because you love it and it’s fun. And it is true that working in this industry requires a lot of passion for the work itself. But you are not just a kid drawing pictures for someone because it’s fun; this isn’t just a hobby. You’re a commercial artist, and the companies that you create work for are definitely turning it around and profiting off of it, and that should be something that they then value from you. They will not value what you do until you start seeing it as valuable yourself. I don’t think anyone goes into graphic design to be rich, but they do enter the field to find fulfilling work. And if you want a fulfilling career, then you need to figure out how to accurately value what you do based on the value it brings to the people you create it for, so that you can be compensated fairly, seen as valuable by your clients, and heck, take a vacation. Which leads me to…
4. Go on vacation. This endless “hustle” culture everyone is obsessed with right now will get old eventually – or kill you. You should sleep. You should take care of yourself. You should go and rest and visit places that are unfamiliar to you. Just grinding out work 24/7 in a dark studio will make you lose vision. Refresh by taking time to breathe and experience something new. For me, I leave the country once every year. Getting out of my element always makes me come back with clarity and excitement for my work.
Who would be the “dream client” that you would do anything to work for? I would like to do a lot more editorial illustration work. There are some newspapers and magazines that I’ve had my eye on for a while, and that would be pretty dreamy work for sure. But also, anything that is meant to last would be a dream project for me – like designing a statue or monument or a permanent installation or mural. I think that it would be pretty amazing to be able to point to something in the real world, instead of just on a computer, when someone asks me what I do. Digital work is fun, but it is so temporary. Anything physical and in the built environment is a dream because it leaves a fingerprint on a city’s landscape.